I'm writing a fantasy-medieval story in which one of the main characters has extensive knowledge of human anatomy. He knows all of the organs and what they do, and knows things like where muscle groups are located and where nerves are. Basically if it could be found out in medieval times, he knows it.

I want him to be able to use this knowledge to control exactly how much pain his victims feel. The problem is that I do not have much knowledge at all of human anatomy, and am not sure how far this character's knowledge could take him.

I want him to be able to kill someone quickly and painlessly. I also want the opposite: for him to be able to kill someone as slowly and painfully as possible. He should also be able to cause a lot of pain without actually killing the victim.

I don't know how he would do these things, or if they are even possible (thinking specifically of the painless one). So I have two questions disguised as one: using only swords, daggers, or similar weapons, can an individual both kill someone quickly and painlessly as well as slowly and painfully, as well as causing maximum pain while not killing the victim? If this is possible with medieval weaponry, how would it be accomplished? What areas of the anatomy would he target?

I apologize for the rather grisly topic. He's a rather grisly character. I tried doing a Google search to answer this question, but only got things like suicide hotlines.

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    $\begingroup$ I see this question has 3 downvotes. If you explain why, I can try to improve it. I can't fix what isn't explained. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 6:03
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't downvote and nobody is required to explain downvotes, but here are some things that might be the reason for the downvotes. First of all, overly gory topics often get a negative reception. it doesn't really matter how much you write that it's about a character, everyone reading this would gain information about torture. It's not even so much about you, but about potential readers. See for example Should questions about painfully killing people be welcomed on this site? $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 6:59
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    $\begingroup$ The next thing is that you are stating you have "two questions disguised as one". The policy is to have one question per post. Otherwise it's basically too broad. These words may trigger some people to downvote/flag. Be carfeul when using such a sentence. After that you are writing three questions in one sentence. It's pretty obvious that those are different points and you expect different answers -> one question per post. After that you write two additional sentences with question marks. Those are unnecessary, because you explained them before, but still more question marks look like more Q's $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 7:02
  • $\begingroup$ I remembered the chinese were already practicing acupuncture and it seems to be extremely effective in the art of medicine and assassination, don't know how true but it is indeed interesting. $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 8:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Secespitus Thank you for pointing those things out. I've marked an answer so that we can move on. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 15:24

2 Answers 2


Medieval knowledge of medicine was quite good concerning bones, nerves and muscles. Not so much for organs (they didn't know what the liver did, for example), but they could torture very effectively. You can look for "Wound Man" in Google Images to see the diagrams of what they knew:

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For a painless death, the easiest way is severing the spinal chord at C3 (the vertebra), which can be done by snapping the neck or by introducing a dagger under the nape upwards.

The most painful torture I can think of in Medieval Times is the maul. Using a big hammer, smash the fingers and the toes and then follow with the articulations: knees, elbows, etc. However, Medieval instruments of torture like the wheel were used because luxations are very painful and it's better than breaking articulations. Mainly because people could still walk after having their legs overstretched, for example, but if you broke the knee, the limb was forever useless.

Also, if you break too many bones, you can cause lacerations in the blood vessels (and internal bleeding), which was a danger known in the Middle Ages. Unknown to them, it also can start a toxic reaction in the body that stops the heart (this also happens with trapped limbs, for example), but I don't know the details of it.

Tearing off eyes and teeth (and cutting the tongue) was also popular and painful. Glokta, a character from The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie, is a torturer who was previously tortured himself. He hates stairs because his legs hurt a lot, but he has every other teeth in his mouth removed and it is very touching the problems that causes him. That trilogy has also scenes of torture which might help you. I remember that Glokta once cuts the fingers of one hand from his prisoner in the middle of his first sentence to him. That impressed me.

For a historical reference, during the Albigense Crusade, prisoners had their eyes removed, nose, ears and lips cut. They left one prisoner with lips and nose to tell what happened and another one with one (or both) eyes to guide the other prisoners.

Castrating, as made famous by Game of Thrones, has to be very painful, but you risk death by bleeding too much.

If your prisoner has to endure a long torture, your "executioner" will need to let him rest from time to time (and also rest himself), but if he is good, he will know that some tortured prisoners bit off their tongues and swallowed them to suffocate themselves and stop the pain.

To prevent it, put a piece of cloth in his mouth. And because there is a limit to the amount of pain screams a man can listen to.


Without going into too gore details, I think you don't need deep knowledge of anatomy to effectively torture.

Medieval time knowledge of anatomy was largely wrong, but still torture was pretty effective. It was pretty much an "art" transmitted along the generations.

Just give a look at Wikipedia page on torture and all the links there listed.

  • $\begingroup$ Medieval knowledge of anatomy was quite good actually; they had inherited the anatomical knowledge of the classical civilization -- the works of Galenus were preserved. What was utterly useless was their ideas of physiology; for example, they knew perfectly well where the aorta was, how thick it was, how it looked like (anatomy), but they had no idea what it did, believing that is was filled with air (physiology). $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 10:49
  • $\begingroup$ This answer is currently in the low-quality review queue. You might want to edit it. I think it's borderline and will skip it: on the one hand I support not going into too much detail and agree with the sentiment that torture was pretty much an "art", certainly at least a profession, meaning they knew how to extend pain. On the other hand you are basically saying "they knew how to torture" and refer to an external site, which means this is basically a link-only answer regarding what exactly they would know and how much they could control the amount of time until the death of the victim. $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 10:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Secespitus, I agree with the policy of not posting "link only" answers, but in this specific case I valued more the "don't give too gore details", which has however been done in other answers here. If this is voted for deletion I will accept it and will not add more details, for the sake of sparing goriness. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 10:56
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch Which is pretty much why I skipped the review of your answer. Just wanted to inform you of the on-going review so that you are not surprised if your answer is suddenly deleted. There wasn't any comment when I was reviewing it, so I just wanted to leave some information about what might be wrong. Basically the same as I did in the comments on this question. I support your stance. Gory questions are alway a bit difficult if you ask me... $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 10:59
  • $\begingroup$ BTW: If you feel it would be okay to post it, but not make it immediately visible you can use the spoiler markdown by writing ">! " at the start of a line. Not sure if you know about that or if that hits your concerns, but something I wanted to make sure is mentioned in this comment thread and I can't remember seeing you ever use this type of markdown. That way people could decide whether they want to see or read something. With enough warnings that might make things easier. Of course this is not an option if you yourself don't want to research this topic any further. $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 13:19

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